California regulators have approved a plan to carry the resources of a rural, wind-rich region of the state to the homes and businesses of Los Angeles and Southern California, bringing the state a step closer to meeting one of the world's most ambitious renewable energy goals.
The California Public Utilities Commission's announcement Thursday means the main portion of a transmission line connecting the Tehachapi region of Kern County to consumers can go forward.
"This project will help bring renewable energy to the grid that would otherwise remain unavailable," PUC president Michael R. Peevey said. "Ensuring adequate transmission infrastructure is vital to helping the state reach its 20 percent renewable energy goal and will contribute significantly to meeting the 33 percent goal."
California's renewable portfolio standard requires that 20 percent of the state's electricity be from renewable sources by 2010 and 33 percent by 2020. In comparison, the European Union's RPS target is 20 percent by 2020.
The state established its RPS in 2002 with a goal of 20 percent renewable power by 2017. The state's Energy Commission and the PUC later urged upping those goals, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed, signing an executive order in September establishing the current 33 percent by 2020 target.
Projects like the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, to be built by utility Southern California Edison, will also help the state reach its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, as a 2006 state bill mandates.
Currently, California emits 1.4 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, which would approximately tie it with France for 14th most if it were a country; the state's economy would be in the top 10. Regulations outlining how California will reach its emissions-reduction goals are to be released next year and adopted in 2011.
States Lead Way for Renewable Energy
While California has taken a strong lead in combating climate change at the state level, it has not been immune to the political polarization and recession-fueled backlash that has swept the country in recent months. Leading Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, has said she would immediately suspend compliance with the law capping the state's emissions, and a group of conservative California politicians have submitted a ballot initiative that would do the same.
Still, California's efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of its $1.8 trillion economy have placed it in the vanguard of subnational climate action in recent years, especially with regards to the development and deployment of renewable power.
When Schwarzenegger showed up at the Copenhagen climate talks last Tuesday, then, it was not merely as another regional representative but as one of the figures who may be shaping what a low- or post-greenhouse gas economy may look like.
"While national governments have been fighting over emission targets, subnational governments like California have been adopting their own targets, laws and policies," he told the conference.
California's efforts are most notable in renewables. In solar, the state established a rebate program in 2006 to provide incentives for installing renewable systems on existing homes, and it launched a program providing financial incentives for installing systems on new homes the following year.
In 2008, California established a feed-in tariff program that allows small-scale generators of renewable power, such as those with solar panels on the roof of their home, to sell any excess power to the utilities at a predetermined rate. This power would then count toward the quota of renewable power that the RPS goals require of the utilities.
Ruben Veek, a veteran of residential solar projects in Northern California and founder of the solar installation nonprofit SunWork, credits these financial incentives for spreading solar adaptation in the state.
"I think these initiatives have a pivotal role to play," he told SolveClimate. "Without the subsidies, solar would never have gotten off the ground in its current form. ... Without the legislation, solar would have been only for people who are off the utilities' grid."
Solar Power from Deserts, Farms, Space
To meet its goals, though, California will need more than solar panels on roofs.
"For a really big scale, you'll have to look at solar farms, and distribution will be an issue," Veek points out.
This is where projects like the transmission lines approved last week come in. The Tehachapi project will provide 4,500 megawatts of renewable power to Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.
Schwarzenegger seized on the announcement as another example of how "California leads the nation in developing renewable energy."
"With the approval of this project our ability to harness the power of the wind and other renewable sources to deliver clean energy to Californians has been strengthened," the governor said.
Proposals and projects for increasing renewable energy capacity are being proposed or approved on almost a weekly basis as the state seeks new, sustainable ways to provide power for its nearly 38 million residents.
Just last week, the PUC approved four renewable energy contracts in which utility companies would obtain access to renewable sources. In one contract, Southern California Edison will source wind power from a project being developed in southern Oregon. In another, PG&E will acquire energy from a new solar project in the state's desert southeast.
In one of the most innovative renewables plans, a start-up company, Solaren, hopes to beam solar power collected by satellites to a receiver station in the state's Central Valley using radio frequencies. A space-based solar panel would be able to generate energy around the clock. PG&E's plan to purchase this power, once the satellites are successfully deployed, was approved earlier this month and operations are expected to begin in 2016.
Reaping the Rewards
Aside from environmental benefits, California hopes to reap economic rewards from its action on climate change. A recent study says it has.
Next 10, a nonprofit focused on improving California's future, released a report last week finding that, despite the economic downturn, green jobs have grown by 5 percent in California since 2007. The number of green businesses in the state has increased by 45 percent, and the number of people employed in those sectors has grown by 36 percent since 1995, compared to a 13 percent overall growth rate during that time.
But Veek explains that renewables such as solar require large up-front capital costs, and, of late, "the credit market has tightened up so much that its more difficult to get the loans needed," particularly for smaller companies. While California has jumped out in front on the race to affordable renewables, it remains to be seen how hard political reaction to the economic recession and frustration with a lack of progress on climate change elsewhere will affect the state's efforts going forward.
(Photos: Tahachapi wind farm, Snakeyes37/Wikimedia/GNU License; Transmissions line construction, California PUC)